The Design Super Highway

Most people are familiar with the old slogan, “Let your fingers do the walking.” But in order to effectively market your kitchen and bath firm in today’s Web-savvy climate, a more appropriate phrase might be, “Let your fingers do the browsing.”

As consumers become more comfortable, and competent, at doing Internet research, the need to make your design firm stand out from the competition becomes more important than ever. And accomplishing this may ultimately depend on a strong marketing platform that showcases your company’s design and service capabilities.

These are the sentiments of Dan McFadden, president of Geneva, IL-based Past Basket Cabinetry, who says: “Online marketing can be more cost effective [than other methods] and can control and deliver your firm’s message more precisely.”

Jim McCoy, president/CEO of Washington, DC-based The Kitchen Guild, agrees: “Clearly, the ability to utilize volume-type marketing and get a lot of eyeballs in a short period of time is critical. Online marketing can also be less expensive, especially if you are paying per click.”

In effect, he adds, online marketing programs equate to a design firm paying to give consumers a true representation of their firm’s capabilities, as opposed to driving thousands of dollars into Yellow Pages advertising “and not being sure what you are getting or if someone will come back to you.”

To that end, there was some variation among kitchen and bath design professionals recently interviewed by Kitchen & Bath Design News as to whether kitchen and bath design firms should become solely Web-based in their marketing platforms or combine them with more traditional methods. However, one thing is clear: Incorporating at least some high-tech marketing approaches is an imperative part of succeeding in today’s economic climate.

According to Mark Karas, CMKBD, general manager, for Stoneham, MA-based Adams Kitchens and the 2007 National Secretary for NKBA, a mixture of online and print marketing approaches proves to be the most effective formula for reaching the most diverse consumer base.

“People are still traditional, [and will always be] looking at newspapers and print, but you will need that online presence because there’s that whole other segment of generations that do everything online,” he offers.

He continues: “It is definitely a growing trend, but I don’t think that you can go with a strictly Web-based approach [at this point].”

Phil Zaleon, founder and president of Z promotion & design in Chapel Hill, NC adds: “Online marketing platforms should be part of an overall marketing and branding effort that you are going to do, because you still want to reach people in a traditional way. A Website is just one part of an overall branding effort that you want to do, because you still need to drive people to your Website.”

To that end, Zaleon recommends buying search engine placement (such as ads on Google), in conjunction with radio and print ads.

But, driving interest does not mean that kitchen and bath design firms need to break the bank, Karas believes.

“I [did a very simple thing and] re-lettered my truck a few years ago,” he says. “Before, the Web address was at the bottom and our telephone number was in the middle. I decided to reverse it. The trend now is to push the Website more than the telephone number; plus, consumers will recall your name and Website more easily than a phone number.”

Mick De Giulio, president and owner of de Giulio Kitchen Design in Chicago, IL adds: “There is no question that a Website is one of the most important things that any kitchen firm can implement. It becomes a credentials check. It may not be where people find you originally, but it is a great link to all kinds of things.”

He continues: “The other part of the equation is how to entice people to look at our Websites while also making sure that we have our best work showcased there. In fact, I [quite often] prefer to concentrate on the work quality and design.”

One of the main reasons for doing this, he adds, is that it allows visitors from outside a design firm’s primary location to get a better idea of the range of work that can be done by a firm, which can widen a firm’s client base.

Karas concludes: “You can [incorporate anything you want in your marketing platform], but the proof is in the pudding – you either are what you say you are or you are not. So you’d better be honest about the services you provide.”

High-Tech Techniques

For Karas, the key to online marketing is visibility.
“Any time you get your name out in the marketplace, and the more impressions you make, the better off you are. This will increase business and profits. That is definitely what you have to do,” he advises.

To that end, many of those interviewed by KBDN shared techniques that have made a significant difference in their online marketing platforms – and ultimately their bottom lines.

“One of the best things that I’ve done is create a link on my Website that is designed to offer marketing tips. Initially, I e-mailed that out every Monday. The first year it was meant as a marketing plan that people could copy. But, it generated business because people would read them, and then come to us to teach them how to do the things we were talking about,” Zaleon notes.

“Everything relates to profit margins, but to say that you’re going to make five percent more on your sales because you have a Website, for instance, is a tough correlation. However, there is no question that if you looked at the bottom line and your ability to do the projects that you want to do, then online marketing will certainly help you achieve that,” De Giulio notes.

Karas interjects: “Another approach I took was to cut my Yellow Pages ad in half. I took that money and put it toward marketing my Website. There is so much more information that you can put on your Website, such as company history, designer biographies and product information. It is a full story in one place.”

Zaleon agrees: “People are not really using the Yellow Pages anymore, therefore you should definitely cut back on your Yellow Pages ads. In fact, if your Web designer is worth his weight in gold, you will be found on Yahoo, Google, MSN and other search engines.”

He continues: “If you are developing a Website, for instance, then it is out there working for you and you then are most likely cutting back on other media. Therefore, you may end up spending less on your advertising budget overall.”

To that end, he also suggests that kitchen and bath firms take advantage of zoom view technology, or learn about interactive software that will allow designers and clients to discuss project details online.

“So, if it is 3:00 in the afternoon and you need to make a decision about the project, it can be done readily. There are many tools that kitchen and bath designers can take advantage of [in this regard],” he remarks.

De Giulio adds: “There is also no doubt that your company’s public relations capability is the main component of a successful marketing platform. Therefore, we incorporate a lot of charity requests into our marketing approach. That serves a dual purpose: We help the charity and our name gets out there.”

McFadden concludes: “Your Website information can go anywhere, so share that information through all printed matter, via e-mail and through word-of-mouth, and make sure links links to your site are created for willing business partners.”

Caught in a Web

Indeed, having a well-developed, professional-looking Website is a vital aspect of a successful online marketing platform, especially when it will be serving as an introduction to consumers from around the world, let alone a firm’s local area, Karas notes.

“The key is to get your name as high up on the hit list as possible. I’ve seen some pretty awful Websites and you can tell the difference between the ones that are professionally done and those that are not,” he states.

Zaleon interjects: “The Website is meant to be another way for people to get to know you, because they are really not buying cabinetry, they are buying you as a designer. They need to be comfortable with you and, in order to be comfortable with you, they need to see your biography and see as many pictures of your completed projects as possible.”

He continues: “In many cases, the Website is the first introduction to you because people are going to sit at home and get to know you and see your products. Therefore, it must be professional-looking. This is not a place to save money because it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and people from around the world will be visiting it.”

Firms can integrate CAD software capabilities on their sites as well to showcase life-like renditions of a client’s dream kitchen. Renderings can also be an effective way to differentiate a firm’s portfolio.

“We try to provide an idea of who we are as a firm, who we are as people and our business philosophy. We also try to highlight our work specialty and how it looks. It’s the same thing we would do if we were face to face with someone. For instance, we have a video on our site now that shows our work,” McFadden says.

De Giulio offers: “User friendliness, a biography page so visitors can get to know the designers and a listing of products and services are all critical components of an effective Website. Basically, it is necessary to include as much concise information and well-considered information as you can give clients online.”

He also offers a different perspective, adding: “I don’t know that people always go to a Website first, but it is effective in terms of reinforcing credentials. It’s almost an automatic reference.”

“I think keeping your Website up to date is the foundation of a campaign. Then, working toward a variable collect-per-click-type advertising approach makes the most sense [for kitchen and bath professionals],” adds McCoy.

Of course, making the site user-friendly is another important feature, Karas adds. “[When I developed my site], I tried to make the site as easy to navigate as possible. I want people be able to move around it and not get locked up where that they couldn’t get around easily.”

McCoy agrees: “Ease of use is critical. It is also equally important for visitors to be able to get to know the designers a little bit and get to know the philosophy of the firm.”

“The site needs to be easy to navigate and it needs to have enough information to give the viewer a comfort level about your expertise in a given area, [such as the differentiation between certain cabinetry or countertop brands],” Zaleon agrees.

Karas says that his Website features company, product and portfolio information, as well as a section called “Getting Started,” which serves as an interactive tour of a user’s anticipated kitchen, complete with dimensions.

“There is actually a hand that draws the room for you as it explains what you should do,” he notes. “We always tell people that it is better that they come in prepared. It allows us to see what the room looks like so that we can start the process that much more easily.”

Conversely, the Website also has a section called “You’ll love us, you’ll hate us, you’ll love us,” which walks the user through a typical remodeling process, along with a schedule of what a typical design process is going to be like.

“You also have the option of installing Podcasts on your site and being able to download those, or you can set up your Website for Windows Mobile, for instance,” Zaleon notes. “We should certainly be able to download a Powerpoint presentation or working papers to educate the consumer.”

He does add a caveat, however, noting that firms can run the risk of showing local competition what their firm is doing or educating a consumer too much about cabinetry and having them take that information to purchase product at a big-box store instead.

Kristin Ohnmacht, marketing director for Bilotta Kitchens, which has locations throughout the metro New York area, adds: “By having a Website with plenty of images that portray what your company can create, you are one step ahead of a competitor that doesn’t have one in development. You want visitors to become intrigued by your offerings even before visiting the showroom. In that sense, the Website almost becomes another salesperson.”

Zaleon concludes: “If there are any kitchen and bath design firms [without plans to develop a Website], then we shouldn’t worry about them, because they will be out of business in the next five years.”

Showroom Substitute

According to those interviewed, showrooms will also play a big part in the online marketing ability of kitchen and bath firms.
Karas explains: “I think the showroom of the future is going to be a cyber showroom, or a virtual reality showroom. The designing programs are getting so good that eventually we’re going to take a customer into a room, flip on a switch, and they will be standing in a 3-D, hologram version of their kitchen layout.”

Zaleon interjects: “If you are doing media centers and you want to get involved with high-resolution, high-definition TVs, then I suggest that you strike up an agreement with the local high-end audio/video guy; you can give him cabinetry for his showroom and he can give you a high-definition TV for your showroom. He can drive traffic to your showroom just from having the cabinetry from your company.”

He continues: “You can also repurpose this material and put together a DVD, or hook up your computer with a Powerpoint of images and use that as a tool to talk to people and inform them. Those can be put online as well because, once you’ve spent money on something, you should be able to use it almost everywhere you go.”

To that end, he also recommends that firms that cut commercials actually make a video that can double as a television commercial. When edited into smaller pieces, it can serve as an online educational tool.

E-Generation Gap

So which age demographics are most receptive to online marketing techniques, and could some generations be “scared off” by certain online marketing approaches?

According to those interviewed, it depends on how a kitchen and bath design firm customizes its approach.

Karas explains: “Even Baby Boomers are computer-oriented, but they also seem to prefer a mixture between the traditional and online. In that sense, one can feed the other. However, I personally think it’s much easier to sit at a terminal and punch in kitchen renovations, instead of looking things up in the Yellow Pages.”

“Conversely, there are the younger people in the world, in their 20s and 30s, who grew up on computers. This generation is definitely more savvy and uses more options,” he continues.

“Our target demographic is roughly 30 years old to 70 years old, and although Internet usage starts at a much younger age today, you’d be surprised at how many people from ages 30 to 60 rely on the Internet for research and shopping,” adds Ohnmacht.

Zaleon agrees: “The younger end of the spectrum is much more Internet savvy and it is only going to get worse, or better, depending upon how you choose to look at it. Kitchen dealers need to recognize that within the next 10 to 15 years, [the tech-crazed] teenagers of today will be homeowners.”

“What we’re seeing is that it is an across-the-board equation, and basically what it boils down to is that visiting someone’s Website is very easy to do. All age demographics can use this tool if they want,” De Giulio adds.

Zaleon concludes: “The moral is that, the more comfortable you get with technology and the more you innovate with technology, the better it will be for your business because that is where we’re all headed.”

The Future Beckons

De Giulio also notes that, despite the advances made in online business practices over the past 10 years, the industry as a whole might not have even scratched the surface of the ultimate marketing, design and service opportunities.

“There may be another way of doing business in the future, and we all need to be open to it rather than worry about it,” he suggests. “In fact, it is hard for me to imagine what it was like 10 or 20 years ago, when we didn’t have nearly the kinds of capabilities we have now, such as being able to get samples and photography instantly to someone in Europe. It is an exciting age.”

Zaleon agrees: “There is certainly room for innovation in this industry. Although we know a lot more than we did 10 years ago, we are still learning. However, it will always be important in the kitchen and bath industry to have that personal contact.”
“At some point in time, the ability to meet with a designer via a teleconference would be an interesting opportunity,” muses McCoy.

McFadden concurs: “I think the industry will see more video capabilities and presentations, as well as a more interactive client area for better communication between the designer and client. We’re currently creating a searchable database by keyword of our scout shots for shelter publications and trade magazines to use.”

Karas shares his vision, noting: “There is always talk in this industry about online ordering, and I think some of those things are definitely going to happen soon.”

“It will be interesting 10 years from now to see how certain products may be marketed and sold to people,” comments De Giulio. “For example, will people purchase certain products that are non-custom, such as fixtures?”

He continues: “People still want to visit and touch products, but there may be some possibilities with regard to some of the meetings that can occur in between. Technology may allow us to visit a job site where we can see the progress and the problems [and update the customer].”

Zaleon says: “We must all remember that the Internet is not the Web – it is the highway. A kitchen and bath design firm’s Website is a store along this highway, and there are other businesses out there that [may also be taking advantage of it].”

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